By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
• Meanwhile, the Bush administration is proceeding with Total Information Awareness (TIA, now renamed Terrorist Information Awareness), a program headed by former Reagan National Security Adviser John Poindexter, an admirable fellow who was convicted in 1990 of five counts of giving misleading and false statements to Congress. (The conviction was later overturned on a technicality.) Working under the aegis of the Pentagon, Poindexter’s Information Awareness Office intends to create a vast electronic dragnet that would (among other things) let the FBI, CIA and other intelligence groups reconstruct the movements of citizens through scrutiny of bank records, credit-card purchases, e-mail messages, phone calls, government forms, drug prescriptions, library checkouts and even the movies we buy on pay-per-view. Done in the name of anti-terrorism (what isn’t, these days?), TIA implies a level of Big Brotherish snooping that has even me listening for the black helicopters.
• And if all that weren’t enough, the White House is currently seeking to fill the lower courts with more Scalias and Clarence Thomases, right-wing judges who threaten to use the bench to push through the ultraconservative agenda the Republicans can’t muster the votes to pass into law.
Naturally, it’s tempting to blame our eroding liberties on a president who has joked more than once that, compared to democracy, “a dictatorship would be a whole lot easier.” (Any thoughts on that one, Dr. Freud?) But Bush’s lack of concern for our rights is hardly unique to him or his party. Just last month the California Assembly displayed an utter lack of concern for its constituents’ privacy in the face of corporate power: By an egregious 9-3 margin — which suggests a small fortune in campaign contributions — a Democrat-dominated committee killed a landmark bill that would require our written approval before our financial information could be sold to telemarketers and other businesses. Perhaps the committee members thought we enjoy all those mechanized, dinnertime phone calls.
This, too, was no aberration. Although Republicans are perceived as moralistic champions of the punitive crackdown — anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-Hollywood, anti-anti-anti-anti — the Democrat Party is itself not exactly bursting with loyalty to the idea of personal freedom. Accustomed to defending government power against conservatives eager to privatize everything, it often loses sight of the state’s own capacity for tyranny.
This blindness was on display during the presidency of Bill Clinton, who, after executing the retarded Ricky Ray Rector as part of his 1992 election campaign, led an administration known for high-profile civil-liberties debacles — from the slaughter in Waco (which killed children in order to save them) to the jackbooted seizure of Elián González. Eager to prove himself tough on crime, Clinton was behind both the 1994 crime bill, which expanded application of the death penalty for over 50 crimes and forced communications companies to make their systems wiretap-ready, andthe ghastly Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which limited habeas corpus petitions by the condemned. The latter bill led ACLU chief Ira Glasser to a crushing judgment: “When historians write the story of civil liberties in the 20th century, they will say that the Clinton administration adopted an agenda that has everything to do with weakening civil rights and nothing to do with combating terrorism.”
Before I’m inundated with angry letters, let me add that I’m not denying the difference between Clinton and Bush. Although disappointingly “moderate,” Clinton’s judicial appointments were less reactionary than his successor’s and his attitude toward government more committed to ordinary people. If Clinton expanded the state’s power over the individual, he also believed that the state has profound responsibilities to the individual: It is there to provide life-enhancing services. Not so Bush, who pursues a far cruder ideological agenda. Even as he exploits fear of terrorism to chip away at constitutional rights, he champions the inalienable rights of property (think of his horror at the “double” taxation of dividends) and mistrusts the idea of public services being provided by the government — which is why he apparently doesn’t mind bankrupting it with his budget.
Still, the fact remains that both Republicans and Democrats have willingly backed policies that increase the government’s power at the expense of constitutional rights; they are part of the same continuum. That’s one reason why we’re seeing the collapse of the old categories of left and right. These days, the strongest voices for civil rights come from the anti-corporate left and the libertarian right — The Nation lies down with the Cato Institute. For the left, this is not without its awkwardness. It means recognizing that Bob Barr, the mouth-breathing Georgia congressman who was among the first to call for Clinton’s impeachment, has worked hard to diminish Ashcroft’s assaults on the Constitution; it means acknowledging that former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a wacko Texas right-winger, led the fight against the Bush administration’s proposed Operation TIPS, a Stalin-worthy scheme designed to get millions of Americans reporting on each other to the authorities. (Now, that’s Neighborhood Watch.)
While it’s easy to scoff at the libertarian right, whose ideas about personal property make Bush look like Proudhon, its soaring confidence provides a valuable jolt of pro-rights energy in a period when too many progressives have fallen into a hysterical defeatism: They keep trying to paint a Hitler mustache on Bush or to inflate cheap attacks on Sean Penn into a new McCarthyism. It’s a measure of the left’s disarray that one senses in it a perverse nostalgia for the glory days when Der Führer was hanging communists on meat hooks or Tail-Gunner Joe was ruining the lives of supposed “Reds.” You know, back when the left occupied the high ground, morally superior and doomed.